IT firm to team with FAA workers in huge job competition

Information technology contractor Harris Corp. will join 2,700 Federal Aviation Administration workers in a public-private job competition involving 58 flight service stations throughout the United States, officials announced Monday.

Under the arrangement, rare for such competitions, Harris and FAA flight service specialists will vie as a team against other companies in the competition. Together, the two entities will form the "most efficient organization," (MEO) and submit the in-house bid.

"[Harris] has a lot of expertise, and we're looking for them to be our systems integrator for equipment," said Robert McMullen, FAA program manager for the MEO. "What we want to do is win, and we feel they're the one that can help us do that."

The pairing combines the FAA's veteran workforce with Harris, a Florida-based firm that holds several IT contracts with the agency and currently supplies technical equipment at some flight service stations. Flight service specialists provide weather briefings to pilots and assist with search and rescue activities.

Observers expect the arrangement to boost the prospects of FAA workers in the competition, which has piqued the interest of contractor heavyweights Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, among other firms. The FAA is including equipment at the 58 stations in the nationwide competition, meaning technical improvements will play a a significant role in the competition.

"It's really important for the MEO because of the technology piece," said Kate Breen, a former specialist who is now an official with the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists, a union that represents 2,200 specialists. "We're not in a position right now where we can go look for new technology, and there's nobody better than Harris for that," she said.

If the in-house team wins, Harris would integrate the technical equipment used by flight service specialists. Legally, the company would be a subcontractor to the MEO, according to McMullen.

Flight service specialists at seven stations already use a Harris system known as the Operation and Supportability Implementation System (OASIS) to plan flights and conduct weather briefings. The technology impressed officials with the MEO, who felt it made Harris stand out from other firms that expressed interest in teaming with the FAA workers.

"Over the last couple of months we met with all the usual players," said McMullen. "Harris was the only one that brought proven technology to the table in OASIS."

The in-house workers also considered submitting their bid without a private sector partner, as federal workers typically do in public-private job competitions. But the FAA's tight competition deadlines-technical proposals are due by August-convinced the in-house team to pursue an industry partner, according to McMullen.

Federal workers have teamed with private firms in competitions before, but the practice is extremely rare. Some agencies have been discouraged by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), which bars agencies from entering into a contractual relationship with a private firm before a contract has been awarded.

But the FAA is exempt from the FAR. The agency is governed by its own acquisition rules, which encourage teaming arrangements, according to McMullen. Office of Management and Budget rules, contained in OMB Circular A-76, also encourage in-house teams to partner with the private sector.

The in-house group has a "teaming agreement" with Harris, according to McMullen. "[Harris] is taking a chance with us that we're going to win, and if we win they become the systems integrator," he said. "It's similar to private industry, where you put your team together and if you win, the team is in place."

Harris is pleased with the arrangement, said Al Dukes, president of the civil programs business unit in the firm's Government Communications Systems Division. "This builds on the significant and ongoing relationship that has evolved between Harris and the FAA over the past 20 years," he said in a statement.

The FAA will evaluate bids using "best value" criteria, meaning cost will be less important than it is in some job competitions. Although federal employee unions generally have been critical of the "best value" approach, McMullen said it could benefit workers at the FAA. "I think what it does is prevent somebody from coming in and low-balling [a bid]," he said.

McMullen expects three to four industry teams to bid against the MEO in the competition.

Some bidders may propose closing or consolidating some of the 58 flight service stations in order to craft a more competitive proposal. The FAA spent $514 million operating the stations in fiscal 2002, according to agency documents.

McMullen said Harris would have input into the content of the MEO bid, including whether they propose closing any stations. ICF Consulting, a Fairfax, Va.-based firm, is providing consulting support to the MEO.

The FAA took no position on the MEO's announcement. "The so-called MEO can do what it wants to, and that's not something the FAA will comment on," FAA spokesman William Shumann said.

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